The passing way of actress-director Vijaya Nirmala gives a moment of beautiful nostalgia to many of her ardent followers and admirers. The graceful lady was in the Telugu cinema for almost six decades. Many of the current generation cinegoers are not aware of her pivotal place in Tollywood, having been exposed to actresses who are not rooted in the Telugu culture in the current era.
Most of the current generation ‘cinephiles’ remember Vijaya Nirmala as the second wife of Superstar Krishna. However, only a few know her place in his heart as a kindred soul who lent mental support to him during times of distress. Many new generation kids ‘have’ to know her contribution to Tollywood.
The Child Star and Star Actress: The making of Vijaya Nirmala
Born as Nirmala to a Tamil father and a Telugu mother in Chennai, Nirmala already had her relations in cinema. Her aunt, the great singer Ravu Balasaraswathi Devi, who is still happily with us, was the first female playback singer of Telugu cinema.
Nirmala was born in Madras, brought up in the city of dreams which was a haven for all four language cinemas.
The great actor N.T. Rama Rao launched the 13 year old girl in the Telugu film industry in the role of Panduranga (a form of Lord Krishna) in the 1957 classic Panduranga Mahatyam, directed by the legendary Kamalakara Kameswara Rao.
The role was well received and the movie was a hit. However, Nirmala was not keen to act until the great producer-director B.N. Reddy spotted her at a function in Madras and gave her the first ‘heroine’ offer in an ensemble cast, for the movie Rangula Ratnam (1966.) This movie was a modern classic which told the story of two brothers at loggerheads. Nirmala played the role with the required dignity and underplay, as the great B.N. Reddy required her to do. This is when she got the defining aspect of her entire actress director career—dignity and poise.
Never ever did anyone find Nirmala overdoing a role or emoting in a melodramatic way which was loud, a trait which characterized some other actresses of her era.
However, the birth of ‘Vijaya’ Nirmala was when the famous Vijaya Productions was remaking its classic Shavukaru (1950) in Tamil in 1965, which established her career not only in the Tamil film industry, but also the Malayalam one. She donned the role of a silent but smart village belle who mends the years long feud between two families, a part which the modern day ‘heroes’ do onscreen. The movie gave her the moniker Vijaya Nirmala, as Telugu cinema already had a character artiste, Nirmala. Vijaya Nirmala always remembered the gratitude she owes to the banner and its chief, the legendary B. Nagi Reddi.
The Years Of Brilliance: Vijaya Nirmala as a Director-Actress
Vijaya Nirmala owes an equal amount of gratitude to the late Bapu, the legendary artist and director, who cast her in his village drama Sakshi (1967.) The movie had her play a strong role, Chukka, who gives courage to her man Kistappa (Krishna,) to fight the village goon. This was Vijaya Nirmala’s first appearance as the female lead opposite Superstar Krishna.
Vijaya Nirmala used to observe Bapu take his shots, his placement of camera, his astounding frame sense and above all, Bapu’s pictorial storyboard, which clearly gave instructions for the actors and the cameraman to take their positions in the scenes. This made her sharp sense of observation work with precision in earning the niceties of direction. Sakshi is also unique in the sense Vijaya Nirmala got married to her co star Krishna after the movie was released. This was the beginning of a fruitful four decade companionship, which lasted for a lifetime.
Vijaya Nirmala made her debut as a director in the Malayalam film industry with Kavitha (1973,) before her phenomenal Telugu directorial debut, Meena, in the same year. Vijaya Nirmala recalled in an interaction with media, it was Krishna who advised her to debut as a director with a Malayalam movie as the budget would cost less, then shift to Telugu.
Viijaya Nirmala was one of the few actresses of her time who made watchable movies, with clean storylines and memorable music. Vijaya Nirmala’s high point in her directorial career was Meena, which was based on Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani’s bestselling novel of the same name. The movie earned her a special place in the pantheon of women directors of India, which the legendary Dr. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna started in 1953, with her trilingual Chandirani. Dr. Bhanumathi was the first Telugu woman director.
The directorial career of Vijaya Nirmala consisted of some landmark films like Sangham Chekkina Silpalu (1979) and Antham Kadidi Aarambam (1981,) but Nirmala had a largely chequered directorial career. Most of this was because she never compromised on dignity and poise.
The Guiness World Record: A Place Among Wonder Women
Vijaya Nirmala was on the verge of eternal greatness with her 44th movie Neramu Siksha (2009.) The Krishna starrer made her the only woman director in the world to direct the largest number of feature films. The official Guinness Book of World Records honored her with the certificate of merit in 2002. With this, she achieved a feat no one else will be able to replicate for a very long time.
The Malayalam Stint: Another Feather In Vijaya Nirmala’s Career
Malayalis cannot forget Vijaya Nirmala till their cinema exists. The reason is, she was the leading lady of the first ever Malayalam horror movie, Bhargavi Nilayam (1964.) The film, starring Kerala icon Prem Nazir and Vijaya Nirmala as leads, told the story of a woman and her love for a musician teacher. The direction of A. Vincent and the immortal music of M.S. Baburaj made the movie a classic, which even the new generation Malayalis vouch as a part of their film heritage. For them, Vijaya Nirmala is the eternal Bhargavi, who squeezed the hearts of millions of Keralites with her performance. She acted in some 25 movies in Malayalam, but is still remembered as Bhargavi, the legendary character written by late short story writer, Basheer.
When we remember Vijaya Nirmala now, at the time of her passing away, we cannot but be grateful to her for adding dignity to the art of film making and for being the graceful lady she was. The current generation, who grow on a ‘hero’ dominated world, should make an effort to appreciate this great lady, not just as the wife of Mahesh Babu’s father, but as a lady of substance and dignity.